Legacy time in Santa Monica

“All politics is temporal” is not as well known a phrase as “all politics is local,” but in these times I suspect it is more accurate. Voting has become more nationalized, but elections seem more and more to turn on voters’ immediate fears.  

Yet we best measure the achievements of governments in the long term because the success of government matches the success of society. Did we establish systems to feed, cloth, house, educate, and care for everyone? Did we protect the environment? Did we make our localities and the world a safer place for all? Did we build the bridges we need both physically and metaphorically? (One bright note, however, is that our oldest president ever is focused on building infrastructure for the future.)

I bring up the long term because at the Santa Monica City Council meeting Tuesday evening city staff will ask the council to begin a process the fruits of which will likely be harvested after many if not all the councilmembers have completed their tenures on the council. But fruits that will, if our civilization otherwise survives, be a legacy from our generation to those of centuries to come.

I am referring to a great park at the current site of the Santa Monica Airport.

Delayed almost three years by the pandemic, staff will ask City Council for authorization and funding to begin a process with the goal of having a shovel-ready plan ready when the City closes the airport on January 1, 2029, the earliest date the City can close the airport under the City’s 2017 agreement with the Federal Aviation Administration that settled the numerous then pending court cases and administrative actions between the City and the FAA. (Since entering the FAA agreement, council has voted to close the airport.)

I urge everyone, especially those who are new to the airport history, to read the staff report for Tuesday’s meeting. Then click on Attachment P to download and read a more detailed “Airport Conversion Report” that consultants prepared in March 2020 as part of the general update to the City’s Parks and Recreation Master Plan. Because of the pandemic, staff never published or delivered the report to City Council.

One schematic from the Airport Conversion Report

Regarding the history of the airport and the efforts to close it, I have written many posts over the years trying to explain the twists and turns. By way of disclosure, not only have I written about converting the airport to a park, but also, I am on the board of the Santa Monica Airport2Park Foundation, and I helped organize the campaign to win approval of Measure LC in 2014. This blog, however, is not written on behalf of the foundation or any other group.

Ahh, Measure LC. “LC” for local control. Under a 1984 agreement with the FAA the City had the right to close the airport in 2015, but as 2015 approached the FAA repudiated the deal. (Observing how the FAA functioned was the first time I had any comprehension of the hatred that some businesspeople have for “government regulators.”) The City fought back against the FAA. Fearing the FAA could lose in court, the aviation industry decided to make an end run around City Council with a ballot measure that would have perpetuated the airport. Once their paid signature gatherers had collected enough signatures to put their measure on the ballot, City Council responded with Measure LC. LC would perpetuate the City’s control over the airport, but mandate voter approval of any use of land removed from aviation purposes other than for parks and recreation. The City won when the voters passed LC with a 60-40 vote in 2014.

An artifact from the battle against the aviation industry in 2014.

The staff report and the 2020 report cover a lot of ground in terms of alternatives not only for what kinds of parks are possible, but also for how to pay for the park. It’s too early in the process to go into the substantive issues in depth, but there are a few points I want to make as the process begins.

• Don’t ever be discouraged. It’s not a walk in the park to build a great park, but we have the most important element: the land. Land worth conservatively $2 billion. Land that could never be assembled again on the Westside of L.A. for any purpose, particularly a public one. We also have time. The park’s final design and construction do not need to come all at once like Athena from the head of Zeus, but can evolve and take place, and be paid for, over decades. During the planning process, there will be furious arguments among equally well-intentioned people. That’s normal. Again, don’t be discouraged.

• Santa Monica is not a big city, but it has shown that it can do big things. Santa Monica operates Santa Monica State Beach, possibly the busiest beach in the country. It built the Annenberg Beach House with major philanthropic support. Forty years ago, it rebuilt the Pier. Santa Monica voters are public-spirited. Our local community college, which owns land adjacent to the airport, and our school district, have raised hundreds of millions of dollars with bond issues. Santa Monica voters have supported bonds for libraries and other public purposes. In addition, there are revenue streams currently flowing from the airport ($20 million/year according to the staff report) that could support revenue bonds and pay for maintenance and operations. (These revenues come from non-aviation sources.)

• Don’t ever let this become a fight between two goods, parks and housing, which are not in conflict but complement each other. The open land at the airport is irreplaceable and is needed to provide open space and recreation for the population of a more dense, post-sprawl city. There is room around that open land, in the already built-up parts of the airport land and in the adjacent business park, for housing, if that’s what the process yields. But a fight between park builders and housers will only help those who don’t want either. Which brings me to my most important point:

• Be prepared: the aviation industry is probably not done with us. As the process continues, and 2029 approaches, expect that at some point the industry will attack with another ballot measure. No doubt they will base their attack on fear of whatever is being considered – whatever it is. Again, good people are going to argue during the process of planning for the airport land. Let’s not let our arguments give fuel to those few who want this multi-billion-dollar public asset to remain in effect their property.

• Remember: this is our legacy, our bequest to the future.

Thanks for reading.

Will advertising come to the streets of Santa Monica?

Congratulations to Lana Negrete, Caroline Torosis and Jesse Zwick on their election to City Council, and congratulations to Gleam Davis and Phil Brock on the council’s choosing them to share mayoral duties for the next two years. Congrats too, to Negrete for being chosen as Mayor Pro Tem.

While I am in the congratulations business, let me make up for something I should have noted in my recent post on the election as more evidence of how liberal the Santa Monica electorate still is. Congratulations to outgoing Mayor Sue Himmelrich on passage of her Measure GS, which will increase the transfer tax on sales of properties of $8 million or more to fund schools, homelessness prevention, and affordable housing.

But now to business. Tomorrow night the City Council will consider awarding a 20-year franchise, worth tens of millions, possibly hundreds of millions, of dollars, to a company, BIG Outdoor (BIG), to construct and operate up to 50 kiosks on plazas, sidewalks and other public real estate throughout the city. These kiosks will be interactive, so that passersby can access information about “wayfinding” and local businesses and government services. They can also use the kiosks to call for services (like the police or services for homeless people in distress) or take selfies. They will also be Wi-Fi hotspots. Think of a kiosk as a giant smartphone.

The main purpose of the kiosks, however, will be advertising. As a corollary to that, the main purpose from the City’s point of view is generating revenue. This program got rolling in 2019 when City Council directed staff to investigate raising money through public-private partnerships as an alternative to raising taxes and fees.

Whether in 2019 the City in fact needed the money, since notwithstanding years of fretting about future deficits the City had accumulated a huge reserve, was a good question. But that question became moot when Covid hit. The City fell into a real budget crisis as we learned how much our City’s budget depended on tourism. In June 2020, in the depths of the post-Covid financial debacle, the council authorized a study to evaluate the use of advertising, naming rights, and sponsorships to raise money. This led in December 2021 to the City’s release of a Request for Proposals (RFP) for a kiosk program that would combine “digital wayfinding” with advertising.

Santa Monica has a long history of limiting off-site advertising. Because of laws passed decades ago you don’t see billboards in Santa Monica other than a few old ones. New signs for businesses need to be part of their business’s building. Standalone signs (“pole signs”), other than those deemed “meritorious,” were all supposed to be removed more than 20 years ago. The City sells ads on buses and trash trucks and made a deal with Hulu to pay for the Breeze bike-sharing program, but that’s about it for commercialization of City property.

Santa Monica historically has had among the highest per capita tax receipts in California. Now, like British aristocrats renting out the country manor to America tourists, Santa Monica trying to make a buck wherever it can. It’s going to be in the position of telling property owners that they cannot put third-party advertisements on their properties, but the City can have them on its. Sic transit whatever.

I am not opposed to off-site advertising, but like all economic activity it needs rules and limits. I heartily support Santa Monica’s ban on off-site ads, but I love Times Square and Sunset Boulevard, too. There are times and places for everything including advertisements. A few years ago, I advocated for the City to use “off the rack” bus shelters that would be paid for by advertising, rather than design and build its own “special for Santa Monica” bus shelters. (We know how that turned out.)

Advertising can be art. For sure it communicates. There is a long and glorious history of poster art on city streets. Think of kiosks in Paris, or here’s a photo I took in Rome in 1973.

Okay, I like this picture of the couple talking. But note the posters.

I am told that the genesis for the current kiosk plan was the need to replace the existing kiosks on the Promenade. Replacing the existing kiosks with interactive kiosks would make sense. As would placing kiosks in similar locations such as near the entrance to the Pier, or where Ocean Park Boulevard intersects the beach. Places where there is a lot of space and a lot of tourists.

Old kiosk on Promenade. Due to be upgraded.

But dropping them in on regular sidewalks? I don’t know. Because these kiosks can be big. Here’s a schematic from BIG’s presentation of a large kiosk:

The size of the kiosks should be geared to pedestrians who approach the kiosks, not to the eyeballs in passing cars. And please, no videos. Let’s not take the next step to a “Minority Report” streetscape.

The council hearing tomorrow night is shaping up as a battle between BIG, which had in staff’s view the best proposal in response to the RFP, and the company, IKE Smart City (IKE), that staff rated in second place. IKE has informed the City that it will file a protest if the City awards the franchise to BIG, and in that connection IKE has a few points to make. The main one is that IKE, as opposed to BIG, has experience operating interactive kiosks connected to local networks. BIG is known for operating digital billboards that are not interactive, but it has on its team a company with experience with such software.

I should note that IKE not only has announced that it will protest if the City awards the franchise to BIG, but also has threatened legal action against BIG for infringement of trademarks, patents, and copyrights. I have no opinion about any of that. Nor am I qualified to opine on the tech issues. However one aspect of the BIG proposal that concerns me is that BIG pledges to have local architects design a special kiosk for Santa Monica. I love our local architects, but let’s remember what happened with the bus shelters when the council said Santa Monica had to be special. Santa Monica is not that special. For kiosks, the important design issue is size. Keep them as small as possible.)

Staff rated BIG’s proposal as best because it was way better financially. BIG went beyond the RFP, and offered a signing bonus of $4 million, predicted high future revenues, and guaranteed the City a minimum annual payment of $5 million against 50% of adjusted gross revenues. You can understand why staff focused on the money if you recall that this whole thing started when City Council asked staff to research how to raise funds without raising taxes or fees.

Over the term of the franchise, 20 years at least, BIG’s financial deal is considerably better than IKE’s. But this may turn out to be a problem tomorrow night: the City’s consultants, a company called Superlative, “question[ed] the feasibility” of BIG’s projection. Superlative raised this question in its final report, which was only delivered to the City last Wednesday. Superlative said that the offer was “clearly an outlier when compared to the other bidders’ proposals as well as Superlative’s revenue forecast.” For their part, representatives for BIG say that they can guarantee the big bucks because only they understand how lucrative the advertising market is in Santa Monica, because they operate the only digital billboards in Santa Monica, those in Santa Monica Place.

A BIB digital billboard at Santa Monica Place.

What bothers me is the process. The City Council is supposed to make this major decision—a 20-year franchise to use city sidewalks to sell ads—but the staff’s reports and presentations have amounted to staff’s promotion of BIG and BIG alone, because staff judged BIG to have best proposal for its financial package. In effect, staff’s recommendation becomes a council decision. At a minimum, the council should see all the information in the bids from both companies, get to ask questions of both companies’ reps, and see their products in operation. In Superlative’s report issued last week, Superlative advises more vetting of the proposals. Consider also, that of the current members of City Council, only Gleam Davis was on the council when this process started.

At the meeting on Jan. 26, 2021, when the council authorized staff to issue the RFP, then Council Member Kevin McKeown asked the maker of the motion, now Mayor Davis, if her motion included the reservations he had expressed that the kiosks not be too heavy on advertising. Davis assured him that it did. But there is no indication, other than language in the RFP saying that the kiosks must have blue lights to show that they are available for emergencies, that the public will know that these kiosks are interactive. Otherwise, it seems they will look like electronic billboards.

The City’s RFP says that the “advertising policy for the kiosks will need to be approved by the City Council before the franchise agreement is awarded.” Yet there is no advertising policy in the draft ordinance awarding the franchise. The RFP has language stating that the City will not allow certain categories of advertisements, but none of that is in the ordinance. Nor do the staff reports include any analysis of the First Amendment issues, even though those issues are flagged in the RFP.

The council should slow this decision down. Let’s get both bidders to answer questions. The council members had better be comfortable with the decision they make, because if things go wrong, they will be blamed for it.

Thanks for reading.

Progression to the mean: Santa Monica voters renew their liberal vows

There may be more votes counted next week, but the results of the Santa Monica elections are clear. What is most clear is that the reactionary turn in 2020 is old news, an artifact of the unique events and despair of that year. The city’s liberal majority has reconstituted itself. I say, “reconstituted itself” and not “returned” because there were notable developments in the liberal vote.

For one thing, the election showed that liberals don’t need alliances with no-growthers to win.

There were four candidates running for Santa Monica City Council who represented traditional, jobs-housing-education-environmental liberalism – Caroline Torosis, Jesse Zwick, Natalya Zernitskaya, and Ellis Raskin. Unfortunately, as I wrote in a previous post, they were competing for only three seats. Collectively the four liberals dominated the vote, but the split vote meant that they won only two of the three.

Two candidates, appointed incumbent Lana Negrete and Residocracy founder Armen Melkonians, were the candidates associated with the “Change Slate.” Three Change Slate candidates won in 2020 running against Santa Monica’s traditional liberal consensus, shocking everyone.

I am not, by lumping Negrete together with Melkonians and the Change Slate, expressing any opinion whether and to what extent Negrete herself identifies with the Change Slate or will vote along with them as a council member. Negrete received endorsements in the election from various organizations (such as Community for Excellent Public Schools) and local political notables who have over the years been on the liberal side. Negrete presents herself as an independent; I doubt if anyone knows how she will vote on the dais. (Perhaps it is significant that she doesn’t list no-growth organizational endorsements on her endorsements page.) However, independent expenditure (I/E) groups more than the candidates created the landscape on which the 2022 election took place. Liberal groups supported Torosis, Zwick, Zernitskaya and Raskin. Grievance-based, reactionary, and no-growth groups and I/E campaigns, such as Santa Monicans for Residents Rights (note the deceptive use of “SMRR”), Santa Monicans for Change, and the Santa Monica Coalition for a Livable City (SMCLC), as well as the no-growth SMa.r.t. group of columnists and Daily Press columnist Charles Andrews, all endorsed Negrete along with Melkonians. They created a de facto slate of the two of them. That’s how the election was fought—those two versus the four liberals. We all got the mailers.

Let’s look at the votes. In the City Council election, Torosis and Zwick, who were endorsed by all the main liberal organizations (Santa Monicans for Renters Rights (SMRR), the Santa Monica Democratic Club, Santa Monica Forward, and UNITE Here Local 11) dominated. By the most recent count (all the vote numbers here are from the totals posted on the County website as of Nov. 25), Torosis has received 17,709 votes and Zwick 16,117. Their totals far surpass the third winner, Negrete, who has only 11,627. Not far behind Negrete is Zernitskaya with 10,667. The top six are rounded out by Melkonians with 10,190 votes and Raskin just behind him with 10,181. None of the other six candidates have received much more than 4,000 votes.

Top vote getters in the City Council election as of Nov. 25

Based on vote totals for the ballot measures, it seems that about 37,000 Santa Monicans voted in the municipal election. That means that Torosis and Zwick each received close to 50% of the vote. Historically that is a good showing. In contrast, Negrete received only about 31% of the vote and Melkonians 28%.

NOTE WELL: The next time you hear someone say or read some column or letter to the editor or Facebook post saying that Residocracy or SMCLC or other NIMBYs represent the people of Santa Monica, remember that Melkonians, with probably at least $100,000 of independent expenditure backing, only got 28% of the vote.

Negrete and Melkonians also had the advantage that their supporters could bullet vote for only the two of them or give their third vote to candidates who had no chance of winning. The four liberals split the vote, but the average vote of the four of them was significantly more than the average vote for Negrete and Melkonians: 13,669 versus 11,147. (Remember also that Negrete had some liberal support, particularly from the education community.) If only three liberals had run they would have won all three seats. (I.e., if the votes of any one of the four had been divided among the other three, all of those three would have won election.)

There was the same result in the School Board election. The three establishment liberal candidates, Laurie Lieberman, Richard Tahvildaran-Jesswein, and Alicia Mignano, all won easily against a grievance slate. Once again, the voters approved an education bond, this time for Santa Monica College.

The main takeaway is the return of the liberals, but what other conclusions can we draw from the vote?

The 2022 vote showed that liberals don’t need NIMBY votes to win elections in Santa Monica. This is contrary to what the leadership of Santa Monicans for Renters Rights (SMRR) has been saying for 40 years. While the positions of the four liberal candidates on housing and development vary somewhat, none of them are what I used to call “Santa Monicans Fearful of Change.” Therefore, it is not surprising that none of the candidates endorsed by SMRR, UNITE Here Local 11, and the Santa Monica Democratic Club (whose endorsements collectively cover all four liberal candidates) also received endorsements from the anti-housing, anti-development element of local politics.

Forgive me a personal note, but I feel vindicated by this. Ever since I have been active in Santa Monica politics, I have been saying two things: that the liberals didn’t need the NIMBYs, and that the NIMBYs had no loyalty to the liberals.

The latter point was easy to prove. As soon as a council member previously supported by the NIMBYs voted for more housing development, the NIMBYs would turn on him or her, something experienced over the years by many council members, including Richard Bloom, Kevin McKeown, Ted Winterer, and most recently Sue Himmelrich.

I couldn’t prove the first point, however, that the liberals didn’t need the NIMBYs, because there were no examples. SMRR always endorsed one or two candidates who also had support from the no growth side. In fact, SMRR’s support for those candidates, which got them elected, was the only reason the no-growth side has had so much power over the decades. SMRR enabled its most virulent haters. Cracks in this façade should have been evident when pro-houser Gleam Davis was the only SMRR endorsed candidate to win reelection in 2020, but it was not until this year’s election that a group of liberals ran against the NIMBY’s active opposition.

The second takeaway from this election is that Santa Monicans love the Democratic Party. Of the four liberals, the two who won, Torosis and Zwick, were the only two endorsed by both SMRR and the Santa Monica Democratic Club. As for Zernitskaya and Raskin, what was the most obvious reason that Zernitskaya did better? Zernitskaya was endorsed by the Democratic Club and not SMRR, and Raskin was endorsed by SMRR and not the Democratic Club. Historically SMRR and the Dem Club have been in sync, with the Club following SMRR’s lead, but this year they diverged, and the Dem Club endorsed Zernitskaya. Turns out that in in Santa Monica in 2022, mirroring the national mood, party loyalty was crucial.

This was borne out also by how every candidate, and/or the I/E campaigns supporting them, wanted to show what good Democrats they were. Resulting in some hilarious mailers, but no need to go into that.

Thanks for reading.

Cleareyed hope vs. the grievance caucus

It has been a while since I have written about Santa Monica politics. After 25 years of obsessing on the subject I don’t have much more to say. Then, once Trump came down the escalator, the Tip O’Neil adage, “all politics are local,” did not carry the same weight as it had before. But probably, to be honest, after the 2020 elections upended everything that I thought I knew about Santa Monica politics, it was laziness: could I muster the time and energy to try to understand our new world order?

I mean, three incumbents endorsed by Santa Monicans for Renters Rights (SMRR) losing? After years when nearly every incumbent, of whatever political stripe, would win? After the election, I wrote about it, but I didn’t say I understood what had happened.

(Although I did write this, this which turns out to have been prescient: “The City is now embarking on a new update to the Housing Element of its General Plan…. The City has legal obligations to plan for a level of housing development beyond what I imagine the new council members and certainly their no-growth backers would willingly agree to. I wonder how this will play out. In the 90s the City was sued over its Housing Element, which was found legally deficient.” Now of course we know that no one has to sue the City over the Housing Element, since once the new council eviscerated staff’s proposed Housing Element and the state rejected it, developers realized they could ignore it.)

As we fill out our ballots two years later, I am not alone in wondering what is going to happen. Let me recommend two articles in our local press about the council election, and how topsy turvy and unpredictable it is.

The first, by my old editor and publisher Jorge Casuso in the Lookout, “Council Race Realigning Santa Monica’s Political Forces,” describes how campaign financing has been turned on its head. SMRR, once the most formidable force in local politics, has little money to spend on those expansive and persuasive mailers it would send to voters. (Disclosure: I have contributed to SMRR’s campaign fund.)

Meanwhile, Edward Thomas Management Co., the company that owns Casa del Mar and Shutters, which used to support, through independent campaigns and direct contributions, candidates who supported housing development and did not give knee-jerk opposition to other development like hotels (disclosure: candidates including me), is now spending big money to support Lana Negrete and Armen Melkonians. While Negrete’s views on housing and other development are not necessarily clear, Melkonians’ opposition to development is key to his political career. He is, after all, the founder of Residocracy, that bubbling cauldron of grievance.

As the article points out, the Thomas company seems focused on the fact that its long-term nemesis, UNITE Here Local 11, the hotel workers union, is supporting three candidates whom SMRR also endorsed—Caroline Torosis, Ellis Raskin, and Jesse Zwick—and opposing Negrete and Melkonians.

Santa Monica Forward, which two years ago raised a lot of money, much from housing developers, to support pro-housing candidates, has raised much less this year. This probably reflects the fact that the state has largely taken away from local governments authority over housing policy. (Disclosure: I’m also a donor to SMF’s political fund.)

Endorsements are also confused, too, which will probably hurt the progressive candidates, since the opposing side appears focused on only two candidates, Negrete and Melkonians.

Focusing on the traditional liberal endorsing groups, Community for Excellent Public Schools (CEPS) is alone among them in that it has endorsed Negrete (along with Torosis and Natalya Zernitskaya). As mentioned above, SMRR and UNITE Here have endorsed Torosis, Raskin and Zwick, but Zernitskaya has been endorsed by the Santa Monica Democratic Club and Santa Monica Forward instead of Raskin. So the progressive side is split.

Even the police and fire unions, which are usually in sync, are not lined up: they both support Negrete and Melkonians, but the firefighters endorsed Torosis and the police endorsed Albin Gielicz.

It’s crazy. The second article I recommend, in the Daily Press, by the paper’s editors, “City Council race is a toss-up,” tries to make sense of it all. They can’t make firm predictions, of course, except to say that the results will be based to a great extent on whether the city’s “progressive voter base” is big enough to elect two or even three progressives given that four (Torosis, Zwick, Raskin and Zernitskaya) are running for three seats.

The Daily Press article begins with an important insight, namely that the biggest question in the election is whether the voters elect Melkonians. That’s because Melkonians is running explicitly as part of the “Change” slate and would join the three Change councilmembers from 2020 (Phil Brock, Oscar de la Torre, and Christine Parra—the “Grievance Caucus”) to form a majority on the council.

While based on the conduct of the three on the dais you might be worried that Santa Monica’s government would simply fall into a state of utter disarray if there are four Grievance Caucus members running the show (would anyone read a staff report?), my biggest fear is that the four would settle the district elections case before the California Supreme Court renders a decision on whether California’s voting rights law requires Santa Monica to establish district elections for City Council. (This assumes that courts would continue to rule that Oscar de la Torre does not have a conflict even though his wife, Maria Loya, is a plaintiff.)

If the case is settled, that could mean that this year’s would be the last at-large election for City Council in Santa Monica. The consequences? Santa Monica voters would go from having seven votes for councilmembers over four years to having only one vote every four years. While in many cities district elections work to enable historically discriminated against ethnic groups to be able to elect representatives, that would not be the case in Santa Monica. While a minority of the city’s Latino voters, the purported beneficiaries of the case, would live in a district that would have a higher percentage of Latino voters than that of the whole city (but not a majority), most of the city’s Latino voters would live outside the district. They like all other voters in the city, including those in the “Latino district,” would have only one vote for council every four years instead of four in presidential election years and three in gubernatorial election years.

A settlement could also mean that the lawyers for the plaintiffs in the case would receive tens of millions of dollars from the City, and that the plaintiffs, who as I said above include Maria Loya, the wife of Oscar de la Torre, would be relieved of their obligations to pay the City’s legal costs.

So, who to vote for? As the Daily Press article states, there are four candidates who are generally considered to have a good chance of winning and who in general fit the profile of “progressive” (or “liberal” as we used to say in my family) when it comes to issues like housing and homelessness, social services and social justice, policing, the rights of workers, and the environment. That isn’t to say that candidates like Negrete, or Albin Gielicz, or Troy Harris are not good people. And it has nothing to do with who is registered as a Democrat.

Those four — Torosis, Raskin, Zwick, and Zernitskaya – all fit within the liberality that has marked government in Santa Monica since the ascent of SMRR more than 40 years ago. It is refreshing to this longtime observer (and sometime participant—yes, you don’t need to remind me, I ran twice for City Council and lost both times) that the progressive community in Santa Monica is not divided this year over hair-splitting arguments about zoning. They are united in trying to save liberal government In Santa Monica. Unfortunately, they are split on which three candidates to support. Not untypical for the Left.

The question is whether in these unhappy days when the politics of grievance loom so large, even in a city as blessed as Santa Monica, there are enough voters who will continue to believe that solutions to problems will not come from fearmongering grievance collectors, but from those with a cleareyed but hopeful vision for the future.

If I knew which three of the four progressive candidates would get the most votes, I’d say vote for those three. I don’t know that. Just be sure to vote for three of the four—Torosis, Raskin, Zernitskaya or Zwick (listed in alphabetical order!).

Thanks for reading.

A happy populace or a city of grievance?

Housing elemental

Last year I wrote several posts about Santa Monica’s efforts to write a new Housing Element that would comply with new state laws that put teeth in longstanding requirements that local governments plan for sufficient growth in housing. Overall, I was doubtful that the City was drafting and would submit a document that would be compliant. Based on those views, I might have been pleased when earlier this month the state’s Department of Housing and Community Development (HCD) rejected the Housing Element that Santa Monica submitted in October.

But I am not.

Let’s put things in context. Santa Monica was not alone. HCD is rejecting most housing elements that cities have submitted. As reported Thursday, HCD even rejected the housing element of the City of Los Angeles, one that had been much admired by the pro-housing community. The problem is that the housing elements can only go so far before they run up against reality.

While HCD must hold cities to a high standard in how they plan to allow more housing development, the process can reach a point of diminishing returns. The housing element process demands an idealization of what should be possible in a just world, but we don’t live in that world. The risk now is that continued efforts to create a perfect document will forestall reform of laws so that real housing, not paper plans for housing, can be constructed. Housing elements are only means to an end; the end is more housing.

I worry that we have reached that point.

When HCD’s rejection letter arrived, the City’s Planning Department immediately suspended a process that was underway to revise Santa Monica’s zoning to satisfy the goals of the housing element that the City had submitted. The process would necessarily lead to better, more inclusive zoning, even if ultimately new zoning, under a more perfect housing element, might be better. Now the process is stopped. Under state law, this creates a paradoxical result.

Because HCD determined that the housing element is not compliant, Santa Monica must now complete zoning changes to accommodate its regional housing needs allocation (RHNA) on an accelerated schedule — by October 15 of this year instead of in two years. However, since Planning has stopped the rezoning process while the department tries to figure out how to revise the housing element to comply, it is hard to imagine how the department can go jump throught all the hoops to get a new revision of the housing element approved by City Council, and then draft and get approval for a zoning update, all by October. (Not to mention that we have a City Council that recently violated the very first program, Program 1A, of the housing element it submitted to HCD by reinstating development review for projects on more than one acre.)

The very first program of Santa Monica’s submitted housing element calling for
administrative review of nearly all housing projects.

It’s going to be a mess; as everyone in the housing world knows, messes lead to delays, and delays mean housing doesn’t get built.

In fact, particularly in the context of HCD’s rejection of L.A.’s housing element, I wonder if it is possible to create a real-world housing element that would satisfy HCD’s requirements. Consider two requirements: (i) that housing elements show how cities will “affirmatively further fair housing,” and (ii) that RHNA numbers, including Santa Monica’s, emphasize the need for affordable housing. (In Santa Monica 6,168 of the 8,895 RHNA units are supposed to be affordable.) It is not possible, however, (i) to remedy, using only land use laws, more than a century of laws and policies that have excluded non-white people from the housing market, suppressed their wages, and otherwise limited their accumulation of wealth, nor (ii) does housing element law provide funding to build the affordable units a housing element would require. For these reasons, housing elements are always going to be aspirational. The power of housing elements comes if the state uses them to force local governments to make zoning changes. If, however, HCD keeps rejecting housing elements, the zoning changes get pushed back.

A better tactic would have been for HCD to accept the housing elements from cities, regardless how aspirational they were, but then come back and review the zoning to make sure that new zoning would allow for achievement of the RHNA numbers if financing were available. If the zoning was inadequate, then a better remedy would be for state law to allow HCD to override zoning and allow by-right development of housing. As it is, if cities continue to be non-compliant in their housing elements, the law’s counter-intuitive remedy is that they can’t receive funding for affordable housing. Does that make sense? Anti-housers are not going to complain if their cities can’t get money to build affordable housing. Better to give the money to affordable housing providers and let them build wherever they can find land. (Cities can also lose other funding, but would anti-housers care?)

The current law ultimately has provisions that give housing developers rights to build anywhere within non-compliant cites (subject to certain conditions), but those aspects of the law are untested and would probably require litigation to enforce, something developers try to avoid. One option that could work now would be for HCD (or the legislature if necessary) to extend deadlines for the rewriting of rejected housing elements while requiring cities to continue updating their zoning to allow more housing.

The amendments that strengthened the housing element law are new this year and it is not surprising that there has been a steep learning curve. Cities say that they want local control and that the state can trust them not to block housing. An extension of the deadlines for a year would give them time to prove that, and we could get better zoning sooner.

Thanks for reading.

Hail and farewell, Kathleen Rawson

After 25 years at the head of Downtown Santa Monica, Inc. (DTSM; previously known as the Third Street Development Corporation), Kathleen Rawson is stepping down.

In case you don’t know, DTSM is a public/private partnership between the City of Santa Monica and downtown property owners to operate a business improvement district (BID). The district initially consisted only of the area surrounding the Third Street Promenade, but it now includes all of downtown Santa Monica.

Twenty-five years. Santa Monica is a city where city managers, chiefs of police, superintendents of schools, and other high-ranking civil servants typically stay for, or survive, five or six years at most. A tenure of 25 years in a job with unique pressures that come from balancing the interests of anxious property owners, their demanding tenants, and politicians who need to please voters, is something that can only be described as marvelous, as in “something to marvel at.”

All hail, Kathleen. We wish you well as you head to the Hollywood Partnership to paint a picture on an even bigger canvas.

In the meantime, Rawson’s departure provides an opportunity to look back at the history of downtown Santa Monica.

I’ve been closely watching (and using) downtown for about 40 years. Even before the City brought in movie theaters and created the Promenade as we know it today (in 1989), back in 1981 I was on the board of the Odyssey Theatre Ensemble. We tried to get property owners to support building a theater on what was then called the Third Street Mall. The Mall was desolate and we thought a theater would help revive it. As was shown a few years later with the movie theaters, we had the right idea. Unfortunately, we did not have the right program to make it happen. (We wanted property owners to lease us land for zero rent, and that wasn’t going to happen.)

Then in 1994 I moved my law office downtown. Initially I found an office in the Clock Tower Building on Santa Monica Boulevard, just west of the Promenade. (My occupancy was delayed, by the way, by the Northridge Earthquake.) New owners of the building emptied out us tenants in 2001 to rehab it into what became one of the most sought-after addresses in Silicon Beach. Ultimately, I found a new office in another 1920s building, the Central Tower Building on Fourth Street. I’ve been in that office for almost 20 years.

In 2003 my parents moved from Philadelphia and rented a two-bedroom apartment in one of Craig Jones’ new buildings on Sixth Street. My mother died in 2007, but my father lived in the apartment until he died in 2019. Through them I learned about what it was like to live in the new residential downtown that new zoning that the City enacted in the ’90s made possible. (They loved it.)

Forgive me if I feel like I have not only some knowledge of, but also a proprietary interest in, downtown Santa Monica. (Hey: as a business owner downtown, I paid double business taxes to support DTSM’s activities!)

The foundation for the initial success of the Third Street Promenade was a combination of factors that predated Kathleen Rawson’s stewardship of DTSM. Those factors included: the Hollywood studios’ finally breaking the Westwood monopoly on first-run movie theaters on the Westside, which enabled movie chains to build theaters in Santa Monica; visionary leadership from city government, notably from Council Members Dennis Zane and the late Herb Katz, which allowed those theaters to be built only downtown; and excellent urban design from Boris Dramov of ROMA Design Group.

Tourists on the Promenade, 2004

Rawson, who was brought in in 1997, made downtown Santa Monica work in a way that both reflected and managed its context. And that context was and is urban, the legacy of downtown’s origins as the central business district for a satellite factory town that had a working fishing pier and honkytonk amusements to boot. Santa Monica was a blue-collar town that like so many was ripped apart by a freeway, which local boosters thought would bring investment to downtown Santa Monica but instead made it increasingly irrelevant. The City expected to solve downtown’s problems by demolishing some crucial blocks downtown to build an indoor mall, Santa Monica Place, but that was then the final blow to the old Third Street Mall, which sunk into decrepitude.

The old Santa Monica Third Street Mall

When the Promenade opened in 1989 many were tired of the suburban retail experience – of malls. I dislike using “authentic” to describe any built place, but people wanted authentic, not artificial, experiences. Neither the movie theaters nor Dramov’s design altered the fact that the Promenade and downtown had not sprung full grown from the heads of architectural descendants of Victor Gruen.

Downtown Santa Monica was undeniably authentic because it was open to all. Which brings up the shame of our society, homelessness. For the 40 years I’ve been around, Santa Monica’s treatment of the unhoused has always been controversial, from every direction. It goes without saying that in our wealthy country homelessness should not exist. We can blame ourselves for the fact that we do have homelessness. In the meantime, whenever things are not going well downtown, you can be sure that homeless people will be blamed for whatever the perceived problems are. Yet it was antiseptic Santa Monica Place, the only place in downtown from which homeless people were excluded, that had to reinvent itself, by making itself more open and better connected to the Promenade, to keep pace with the level of retail sales on the Promenade.

Meanwhile, for those who believe that Santa Monica’s approach to homelessness has made the problems the unhoused create for the housed worse: well, just consider that Santa Monica does not have the sidewalk encampments that have sprung up in Los Angeles. Santa Monica’s approach has been not to criminalize homelessness, but to provide services and to try to build more housing, all the while not allowing the condition of being homeless to justify antisocial behavior. This has been DTSM’s philosophy, as exemplified by its Ambassador program, which Rawson instituted about ten years ago. (It is also the philosophy behind replacing Parking Structure 3 with housing; let’s do it!)

Perhaps the biggest tribute to Rawson’s management of DTSM has been the expansion by the City of DTSM’s purview. Originally, the Third Street Development Corporation was focused on only the blocks around the Promenade and collected assessments from only that area. Then the geographical scope was extended from Wilshire to the freeway, and Ocean Avenue to Seventh Street. Later, when the Expo line opened in 2015, the assessment district was extended to include Lincoln Boulevard and additional areas around Colorado Avenue. Since 2018, the Ambassador program has been extended even further, to include Palisades, Reed and Palisades Park. (As a mark of the expansion of Rawson’s responsibilities, the DTSM budget increased from $800,000 to $9 million over the past 25 years.)

This expansion took place as downtown Santa Monica evolved, as living places always do. About 4,000 people now live downtown, a big change from 30 years ago. If you walk Fifth, Sixth and Seventh Streets, where most of the new apartments are, you see the neighbors out and about. They shop in local stores and, especially, eat in their neighborhood restaurants (or, rather, in these Covid days, they eat outside of them).

What I have admired about DTSM’s approach (which I assume is Rawson’s approach) is a respect for the unpredictability of the urban context, while recognizing that a little management of it can go a long way. This is the approach of the Ambassador program, and was also the approach behind the Street Performer Ordinance. You can see the approach in the new restrooms in Parking Structure 4 (how often in America does a city provide that basic amenity?).

Meanwhile, ICE, the immensely popular ice-skating rink that Rawson initiated (inspired by growing up in Minnesota) and actions like opening the Promenade for outdoor dining when Covid hit, or instituting a family-friendly PRIDE festival, reflect an attitude that public areas in a downtown should not be static, that they are flexible spaces, not built and programmed for specific functions.

What’s next for downtown Santa Monica? Even before Covid, the brick-and-mortar stores on the Promenade were feeling the pressure from on-line retail the same as retail everywhere. Stores were closing, there are vacancies, and rents are declining. With Covid, the loss of free-spending international tourists has been devastating. Rawson’s next plans were for downtown to pivot more towards entertainment, events, and dining. (Disclosure: I’m on the Board of the Jacaranda Chamber Music series, which has presented concerts downtown at the First Presbyterian Church for almost 20 years; Jacaranda has been in discussions with DTSM about presenting one or more outdoor concerts.)

One thing we know is that downtown Santa Monica will not stay still. It will continue to evolve. Let us hope that the DTSM board will find a successor to Kathleen Rawson who is as capable as she: capable enough to survive 25 years in a tough job.

Thanks for reading.

Santa Monica’s housing element: a new episode!

The next episode in the continuing series of meetings regarding the new housing element of Santa Monica’s general plan will take place Tuesday evening. Then the City Council will review and vote on amendments and additions to the version of the document that the council approved in June. The state’s Department of Housing and Community Development (HCD) rejected the City’s draft in a letter dated August 30 detailing where HCD saw failures to satisfy the state’s requirements for the housing element. The changes the council will consider are those that planning staff recommends to satisfy HCD’s requirements. (Note that various drafts of the housing element, HCD’s letter, staff reports, public comment, Planning Commission actions, etc., many of which are referred to in this post, are downloadable at this link.)

On the surface of things, at this point the process seems underwhelming. This is because HCD’s comments, contained in a 12-page appendix to its letter, certainly “sweat the small stuff.” I read the document hoping for an eloquent critique of how Santa Monica, playing a small but important role in an larger story involving all of affluent California, had so botched housing policy over 40 years: (i) that our city and region are overwhelmed by and shamed by tens of thousands of people living on the streets, (ii) that low-income and even middle-class households of working people cannot find housing without paying 50% or more of their combined incomes in rents, (iii) that historically affordable neighborhoods are seeing unprecedented increases in housing costs because historically affluent areas have not allowed for growth, and (iv) that even young people with high incomes cannot find housing suitable for raising families.

Instead, and I suppose they were doing their job, HCD’s staff wrote a dry 12-page report showing where the City’s draft failed to satisfy its statutorily mandated requirements to assess the reality of the housing situation, the reality of the constraints to building housing, and the reality of what the City planned to do to fix the problem. Fine; every comment HCD made was justified, but then I don’t know how answering those comments will lead to more housing being built.

For example, in section 5 of the letter, HCD identifies numerous places where the City’s draft failed to identify constraints on the building of housing, or the costs of those constraints. But even if all those constraints, and there are many, were identified and their costs enumerated, how will that lead to more housing if there is not political will to do so? The housing element, even the draft council approved in June, has a list of actions the City is promising to take to make it easier to build housing, but with the current anti-housing council majority in power, do we believe they will follow through? Do we believe that even if they liberalize the zoning, they will not find some way to subvert the liberalization?

To get something done, you can’t ignore the politics, but of course any staff-written document must ignore the politics, even to the point of dissembling. I’ll give one example. Back in 2010, after six years of very public process, the City Council approved new land use and circulation elements of the general plan (the LUCE). To encourage housing in commercial and industrial zones (i.e., to build housing without densifying existing residential areas), the LUCE contemplated, among other things, larger projects that would be subject to a higher level of review and negotiation of community benefits (namely, development agreements). These were “Tier 3” projects and “activity centers,” the latter to be located near transit centers with the possibility of more development than even Tier 3 projects.

Santa Monica’s zoning map. Very few of these zones allow for significant new housing.

But when it came time to enact a zoning ordinance to implement the LUCE, the council had changed. It had become more conservative, more anti-change; more beholden to those who were comfortable with things the way they are. As a result, in the zoning law, the council very nearly obliterated the possibility of building Tier 3 projects and deleted four out of the five possible activity centers.

This history is recounted on page 9 of Appendix E to the housing element, the appendix that describes, as the law requires, constraints on housing. If you look at the redlined version staff is asking the council to approve, you will see language staff has added in response to HCD’s demands for more analysis of constraints, but the staff’s anodyne language ignores the real history. Instead, staff makes it sounds like the down-zoning occurred because the City wanted to avoid the discretionary processes developers would have had to go through to build the bigger projects, but that’s not what happened. The down-zoning occurred because of the politics. The council did not want the bigger projects and killed the possibility they would be built. Council did not kill Tier 3 and activity centers to make it easier to build housing; just the opposite. Later, the council passed new zoning for downtown that stopped new housing from being built; the apartments that are nearing completion now on Lincoln and elsewhere were built under the previous downtown zoning.

The whole housing element is a feel-good, “let’s pat ourselves on the back” document that belies the current reality.

If the council now passes the revised housing element it will be committing itself to, in the words of staff’s proposed revised Appendix E, a reevaluation of “development standards and regulations, both independently and cumulatively, to not only ensure housing projects are feasible, but that they also incentivize housing production citywide,” but I’ll believe it when I see it. What it all means is that the housing element is just the first step. The proof of the pudding will come when we find out if the council will enact new zoning and remove other constraints on housing to encourage housing to be built.

Otherwise, what will happen? If history provides precedent, there will be litigation. The Santa Monica Housing Council, the organization that successfully sued the City 30 years ago over the housing element the council passed then, has had its lawyers send long letters to the City detailing where they see deficiencies. Most of their comments are not reflected in the revised housing element and I doubt City Council would approve them if they were. Out of the litigation in the 1990s came the zoning that allowed the creation of a new residential neighborhood downtown east of Fourth Street; maybe more litigation is what will be needed again.

Whatever happens Tuesday evening, there will be more episodes in this continuing series.

Thanks for reading.

Some other shoes drop in Santa Monica and Malibu

As summer was winding down last week, reminders arrived that while the world wrestled with the Delta variant and Afghanistan two big local issues had been quietly percolating. The issues are whether Malibu will form its own school district, seceding from the Santa Monica Malibu Unified School District, and how the California Department of Housing and Community Development (HCD) would react to the draft Housing Element that Santa Monica submitted to HCD July 1. In both cases shoes dropped in the form of reports from professional staffs outside of Santa Monica.

Let’s start with Malibu’s attempt to form its own school district. What happened last week was that the staff of the Los Angeles County Office of Education (LACOE) released its report to the “L.A. County Committee on School District Organization” (the “County Committee”) containing the staff’s analysis of whether Malibu had satisfied the requirements of state law to form a separate district. The context is that after about five years of on-and-off negotiations, Malibu broke off negotiations last fall, even as the parties seemed to be finally reaching an agreement. Instead, Malibu renewed a 2017 petition to LACOE to separate. (I wrote about the negotiations and other maneuvers here in April; for an up-to-date and clear-eyed analysis of the Malibu secession drama, including its history, read this article that the L.A. Times ran over the weekend.)

The County Committee held a public hearing on the petition in April, then referred the matter to staff for review. There are nine factors that come into play in determining whether to approve the formation of a school district. The document released last week includes the staff’s analysis of those factors, as well as general conclusions. The document was prepared as groundwork for a continuation of the April hearing September 18. At that meeting the committee can either kill the application or refer it to a further level of review, what is called the “regular review process” (as opposed the current, “preliminary” review). (Whatever the LACOE ultimately decides, the final decision rests with the State Department of Education.)

In the report, the LACOE staff recommends that the matter be moved into the regular review process, during which the County Committee can gather more information and do more analysis. If the committee accepts staff’s analysis, that would keep Malibu’s proposal alive, but if I were a Malibu separatist, I would not be entirely optimistic after reading the report. Staff found that the proposal only satisfied one of the nine conditions, and there is at least one, that a district have at least 1,501 students, that seems difficult for Malibu to satisfy.

More generally, staff advised the committee that a simple desire to have one’s own district does not justify forming a new district: “Staff is informed and believes that resident students in the area proposed for a Malibu UFD [unified school district] have access to enrollment in Santa Monica-Malibu USD schools now, and always have. Whether or not they find the Santa Monica-Malibu USD insufficient for their particular needs does not merit the creation of a new USD, especially in light of the potential negative fiscal impacts such reorganization would have on the resulting Santa Monica USD.”

Nonetheless, perhaps recognizing that neither Malibu nor Santa Monica want to continue in one district spread out over 30 miles of coast and even more social and economic distance, the thrust of the staff’s recommendations is that the parties get back to the negotiating table. The report concludes as follows: “It is also clear that, though they have hit roadblocks numerous times, the City of Malibu and the Santa Monica-Malibu USD still have the opportunity to negotiate and to come to the County Committee with a joint solution. A negotiated solution that honors the needs and concerns of both parties remains the best recommendation.”

As for Santa Monica’s housing element, the shoe that dropped last week was not unexpected: it was a letter from HCD telling the City how its draft housing element was deficient under state law. I say not unexpected, because given all the restraints on building housing in Santa Monica, both regulatory and financial, and the substantial political opposition to growth, it was unlikely that Santa Monica would submit a first draft that would satisfy state housing law. State law requiring real efforts to allow for housing has been substantially strengthened since the last time the City produced a housing element.

It is clear from reading the 12-page HCD letter that Santa Monica has some hard work to do before it will be able to satisfy HCD. As I discussed in previous posts, compliance with housing law has two fundamental dimensions. One is providing enough zoned capacity for the number of units, the “RHNA allocation,” assigned to the city over the eight-year term of the housing element. This involves some tough political decisions in a town where zoning has been used for decades to keep new housing from being built in much of the city. Nonetheless, achieving enough capacity is fundamentally a matter of numbers: how many square feet of land can be built on, and how much can be built on that land. Along with getting rid of all the administrative and regulatory impediments and costs used to slow approvals and construction, determining how much capacity is available, and increasing it as needed, should be a reasonably objective enterprise.

The other dimension of compliance is more subjective: it is a requirement for what’s called “Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing” (AFFH). This entails trying to remedy a century of unfair housing: legacies of single-family (R1) zoning, restrictive covenants, redlining, outright discrimination by realtors and sellers, etc., the purpose, and result, of which was to allow Anglos to live in their own enclaves and diminish the economic prospects available to households of color. In an earlier draft of the housing element prepared by staff there were provisions to allow more housing development in R1 zones, provisions that the City Council rejected. Those provisions are justifiable on their own as means to increase housing capacity and as such would have opened R1 areas up to more households, some of which no doubt would be of people of color. Because of economic reasons, however, it is not clear that these provisions themselves would have furthered fair housing to a significant extent. A century of discrimination has created fundamental economic obstacles to fair housing.

HCD, in the letter, dismisses the City’s AFFH analysis, saying that the draft “does not address the requirement to provide an Assessment of Fair Housing,” and later advising the City that it “should go well beyond exploring options and must commit to meaningful and sufficient actions to overcome patterns of segregation and foster inclusive communities.”

This is a challenge. More is going to have to be done.

The schedule now is that the City has a statutory due date of October 15 to adopt an approved housing element, but in fact penalties do not accrue until 120 days after that. This means that Santa Monica has about five months to get things right.

Thanks for reading.

The countries we’ve lost

I have been writing my Lookout column and this blog for about 20 years and nearly all I have written has been about Santa Monica or urban issues that affect Santa Monica. At times, however, world events, such as 9/11, have caused me to write about broader matters. A few days after 9/11 I wrote, “I hope we are as smart as we are tough. I have a fantasy that the U.S. will obtain and show the Taliban convincing evidence that Osama bin Laden is guilty, and that the Taliban will give him up to our justice system. Think what a triumph it would be to show that we can give our sworn enemy a fair trial.”

Okay, that was a fantasy, but then fantasies play a big part in the tragedy of Afghanistan.

I was born in the middle of the Baby Boom, in 1952, and as I complete my seventh decade, I am chagrined to realize that while I was born to an American generation that when young had participated in saving the world, my life has been bracketed by two disastrous foreign adventures, Vietnam and Afghanistan. To paraphrase Vizzini in The Princess Bride, two “land wars in Asia” that we should never have gotten involved in. 

Perhaps Vizzini could have made a more generalized statement: don’t get involve in peasant revolutions. People forget that the U.S. sent troops to Mexico and Russia during their peasant revolts, supported the losing side in China, tried to overturn the revolution in Cuba, and then there was Vietnam. You can throw in Iran’s revolution against the Shah, too—as we saw there, and as we see in Afghanistan, peasants and villagers do not always revolt with the purposes we think they should have. They can express their grievances against centralized authority by means of tradition, too.

In any case, our interventions had no effect. We “lost” China. We lost Vietnam. Now we’ve lost Afghanistan. We’ve lost a lot of countries, right? And what of it?

George Santayana famously wrote that “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” They study history in the universities and service academies our leaders and generals attend, right? Nonetheless we have been condemned to repeat a lot of history. Then there’s that other aphorism (often attributed, apparently mistakenly, to Albert Einstein), “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” What if we are doomed not by forgetfulness, but by insanity? A mass psychosis that makes us believe we have powers we don’t have?

“Losing” China, then Cuba, and then losing the Vietnam War, fueled a decades-long rage among the right-wing in America. One result was distortion of the notion of patriotism. It was patriotic to blindly support policies (and deployments) that resulted in America’s humiliation, and unpatriotic to be clear-eyed about reality and what America’s interests were. (The Left fed the rage with its own rhetoric, and lost a lot of elections along the way, but that’s another story.)

Fighting the peasants in Vietnam was unpopular, to say the least, among the Left. Fighting peasants in Afghanistan, after going in to clear out Al Qaeda, not so unpopular. I count myself among the Left in this regard: until three weeks ago I was hoping, even expecting, that the urbanized population of a modernizing Afghanistan would take to the barricades and repulse the Taliban from the cities. More fantasy. One fantasy we have on the Left is that colonialism and imperialism, including the neo- varieties, are all about power, control, exploitation, and capitalism. There is also imperialism of ideas, and that imperialism runs against the tide of nationalism and peasant revolutions just as much as the other imperialism runs against the tide of anti-colonial liberation.

As a leftist I’ve always felt a bit embarrassed with the inconsistency that we on the Left have about this. We trumpet the rights of indigenous peoples, yet is there any economic theory, ideology, or philosophy more Western than everything that came out of the Enlightenment, including human rights, secularism, feminism, and both capitalism and Marxism? How far should we go? What would be better: to extend the Universal Declaration of Human Rights to an unknown people living in the Amazon, or leave them alone?

We on the Left want to change the culture of rural Afghanistan as much as Christian missionaries. To say that we oppose all fundamentalist religions, not only fundamentalist versions of Islam, hardly erases the contradiction with our anti-imperialism, our pro “self-determination.” As for the missionaries, it’s been a century or so since they journeyed to darkest wherever with protection from a powerful military, as our civil society NGOs had in Afghanistan.

Meanwhile, along with Western music, there’s been one extremely successful export of Western ideas: materialism. There is an effective means of reaching the hearts and minds of the un-modern peoples of the world, and that’s been through their stomachs, using “stomach” as a stand-in for all the things people find that they like when they can leave behind subsistence and barter and enter a money economy. People like their cellphones.

Japan might have been the first non-Western country to join its interests to the modern Western economy, about 150 years ago. Many nations have joined since, especially since the end of World War II. It typically takes two or three generations, but generally modernizing countries gradually acquire first a legal system that protects individual rights (such a legal system is essential for a modern economy) and ultimately a democratic system, or at least, along the way, a quasi-democratic system that protects civil and political rights. Hey: arguably we had only a quasi-democracy until women’s suffrage, the termination of lynching, and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. (And we’re still working on it.)

The essential American interests around the world are to support our long-time developed and historically democratic allies as well as those peoples who have joined this group since 1945, while securing a peaceful framework around the world for other peoples to develop and modernize. We don’t need to “confront” China and Russia as much as we need to have patience with them. This patience needs to be grounded in an unwavering faith in our Enlightenment values of democracy and human rights. While these values cannot be imposed from above, certainly not by force, they are powerful. We are on the right side of history.

I’m speaking here of long-term history, but on the short-term, the idea that nationalist and fundamentalist Islamic Afghans are suddenly going to be friendly with Russians and Chinese is farfetched. Again, look at Vietnam, which for quite some time has had friendlier relations with the U.S. than it has with China or Russia.   

Meanwhile, there is the unfolding misery in Afghanistan, and the likelihood that many Afghans, particularly women and girls, are going to lose their freedoms and rights, and are at risk of losing their lives. Many want to get out, and we need to help them. Again, this is not the first time that a revolution has created a wave of refugees. The wars in Indochina produced over a million, of which the U.S. took in 300,000 or so, while hundreds of thousands of “boat people” died at sea.

The experience with the refugees from Vietnam and elsewhere should give us hope and perspective over resettlement. Vietnamese and other Indochinese refugees have, like so many “homeless, tempest-tost” before them, joined our nation and become part of it. If once the dust settles Afghan refugees cannot go back, let’s welcome them here.

As for those who stay behind, or who are left behind, history shows that the worst alternative is for the U.S. to grab its ball and go home. Whenever we lose and then walk away—think Russia, China, Cuba, Vietnam, Iran—we lose influence. In each case, it took decades to reestablish diplomatic relations—we still haven’t done so with Iran. America somehow thinks we help ourselves by denying diplomatic recognition to regimes in power that we don’t like. It’s like having a tantrum and sending ourselves to sit in the corner. More fantasy, more insanity. We need to stay engaged with the Taliban. We’ll have more influence.

Thanks for reading.

Stop the presses: nice words about landlords uttered at the Santa Monica City Council

Before I can quit with writing about the housing element that the City of Santa Monica has sent to the California Department of Housing and Community Development (HCD), I have to visit an extraordinary conversation that took place during the June 15 City Council meeting. That was when council gave planning staff final directions for the housing element before sending it to HCD.

The discussion I’m referring to was extraordinary because in it two councilmembers praised landlords for their role in providing affordable housing. Certainly, I have not observed every City Council hearing during the nearly 30 years I have been following and participating in Santa Monica politics, but I cannot remember anyone praising landlords, as a group or class, from the dais during that time. It seems that after the rent control battles of the ’80s subsided, all political discourse in Santa Monica, even from the pro-business side, devolved into a default mode in which anyone who owned or developed residential property (other than a homeowner) was at best the equivalent of a “kulak” (wealthy peasant) or at worst a predatory capitalist.

The discussion occurred when the councilmembers were discussing Program 3.A in the draft housing element. In the draft presented to the council June 15 Program 3.A said that the City would amend its ordinances to make permanent anti-displacement provisions in the California Housing Crisis Act of 2019 (known as SB 330). SB 330 requires that if a housing developer would in building a new housing development destroy existing rent-controlled or affordable deed-restricted units, the developer would need to replace those units in the new development and rent them to low-income tenants. Under SB 330, these provisions sunset in 2025; Program 3.A would make those requirements permanent in Santa Monica.

The discussion began with Mayor Sue Himmelrich expressing her opinion that not only did she want to make SB 330 permanent, but she wanted to provide that the rents in the newly built, but rent-controlled, apartments would be the old rents, not reset to current market-rate levels. Even better, she wanted the new units to be deed-restricted and made available to low-income tenants. She said this would add “predictability.”

Councilmember Oscar de la Torre, however, had a problem with Program 3.A. He was concerned with its impact on “mom and pop” landlords. He said these apartment owners had been providing affordable housing for many years in the form of rent-controlled apartments. De la Torre said that he would “have a hard time punishing them,” because they had been “doing the right thing for so many years.” He asked if this law wouldn’t “lock them into the same situation where they can’t make any progress for their family.” He said that “government should compensate these people;” he asked, “shouldn’t we have a way where we share that burden?”

De la Torre made it plain that he was only talking about “mom and pop” apartment owners, not corporations that might own “25 buildings,” but still my jaw dropped. As I said before, I cannot remember a member of the Santa Monica City Council expressing sympathy for landlords, big or small, let alone their heirs. Nor one of them making arguments that would make it more economically advantageous to tear down existing apartments—and this from a local figure known for his opposition to the use of the Ellis Act to do precisely that.

Councilmember Phil Brock agreed with de la Torre. He said that the law requiring replacement of rent-controlled units would disincentivize replacement of old housing, and that we would end up with “more rundown apartments.” He used a hypothetical of a 75-year-old building that might ultimately need to be replaced. He said that given the cost of doing so, the replacement could not happen if the new units were rent-controlled or deed-restricted affordable. (Both Brock and de la Torre come from families that own apartments. They did not make announcements at the meeting about this (although Brock referred to his mother as an apartment owner), but I expect that everyone on the (virtual) dais was aware of it.)

At this point Mayor Himmelrich jumped in. She responded to de la Torre and Brock by saying that property owners could make enough money to justify rebuilding from additional, market-rate units they could build. She took a hypothetical four-unit building de la Torre had used and said that such a building could be rebuilt with eight units, and the owners could make plenty of money from the four new units.

I doubt Himmelrich is correct. Since the ’80s Santa Monica has downzoned its multi-unit residential districts, so that it is not generally possible to build as much on a residential lot as could be built previously, when these old apartments were built, let alone double the size of existing apartment buildings. Here is a detail from the zoning map:

Detail of Santa Monica zoning map.

As shown, most multi-unit residential districts are zoned “Low Density Residential” (R2 or the analog in Ocean Park, OP2), including nearly all of the Pico Neighborhood, mid-Wilshire/WilMont, and Ocean Park. The theoretical maximum number of units per lot in R2 is four, but for most lots the real maximum is three because the minimum size of a unit in R2 is 2,000 square feet. (This large unit size is evidence, incidentally, that the downzoning discouraged affordable housing.) Even if retaining the units would qualify the development for a 50% state density bonus (the best available), at most the development would have five, or maybe six, units. Possibly the owner/developer could add a unit by asking for “concessions” under density bonus law, but even if Himmelrich’s hypothetical eight units could be built, privately-financed housing cannot be financed with a 50% inclusionary requirement. Finally, is it realistic that on single lots in residential districts, the size of apartment buildings will be doubled?

In fact, planning staffer Jing Yeo had already explained the real impact of SB 330 on Santa Monica: she told the council early in the discussion that the effect of SB 330 here was to prevent a property owner from tearing down four units and replacing them with three.

Brock replied to Himmelrich by saying that the replacement provisions made reinvestment infeasible. Himmelrich responded by asking him, “are we doing this housing element for landlords or for tenants?” Brock seemed taken back by the question. “I think we’re doing it for everyone,” he replied, “[i]t should be ideally a symbiotic relationship.”  

I am a New Deal-type Democrat with socialist leanings, and as such I believe in regulation of economic activity. That includes rent control, which is, or can be, a reasonable exercise of governmental authority with multiple social benefits. Rent control, however, like any economic regulation, needs to be reasonable. Regulations are not reasonable if they are so strict that they defeat their own purposes. The purpose of rent control is to deliver safe and well-maintained housing that people can afford. All regulations require recalculation and review from time to time, just as all housing needs maintenance, whether the building is a wood-framed apartment structure in termite-country or a steel and concrete condo tower in Florida. Sometimes old buildings need to be replaced.

Councilmember Brock was right when he described the relationship between property owners and tenants as symbiotic. Our economy is largely capitalist, and we rely on private capital to build and maintain housing. This is even the case, to a great extent, when it comes to affordable housing. (Personally, I would like to see government get back into the business of building public housing, but that is not likely to happen any time soon.) Whether the capital comes from “moms and pops” investing their life savings into an apartment building, from private placement financing for specific developments, or from publicly-traded REITs, etc., investors have to believe that they have a good chance of having a better risk/return ratio than they would have if, for instance, they invest their money in a stock market index fund.

If you would like to watch these City Council deliberations about making SB 330 permanent, click here to go to the video, and then go to the 5:02 mark and start watching. Lasts about 20 minutes, and you’ll also see what they decided to do. Hint: nothing.

Thanks for reading.